03/09/2014 at 08:00 PM EDT
It’s been nearly 35 years since Carl Sagan became a global celebrity hosting PBS’s guide to the universe, Cosmos
. In that classic series he also originated the catchphrase "billions and billions," which can suggest the staggering immensity of the universe or, even more mind-boggling, the number of variations the Internet has created on "What character are you?" quizzes.
The arrival of sophisticated digital effects alone makes a fresh Cosmos
worthwhile, and this new version – the producers, who include Seth MacFarlane
, refer to it as a continuation – is great to look at.
We gaze into Jupiter’s whirling, churning red spot and dip down into Venus’s clouds. These are dense and unhealthy looking, like a spoiled dairy product suspended in water – not every marvel in the universe is going to be pretty.
If anything, the premiere hour can feel a little Willy Wonka
in its pursuit of wonder, as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson zips around in a Starfleet-like "spaceship of the imagination." (When the ship tilts to one side and flies on its axis, it suggests EVE from Wall-E
But Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
, which premieres Sunday on FOX at 9 p.m. ET/PT, with a simulcast on National Geographic Channel, is a deluxe and very intelligent production, crammed with information. And Tyson, who kicked up an amusing fuss when he Tweeted about errors
, is a confidently smooth popularizer of science.
He benefits from the fact that he’s somewhat evocative of the late Raul Julia (the Addams Family
movies, when he had the Gomez mustache).
If he occasionally seems to be picturing himself as the new James T. Kirk, this is possibly because our heads by now are filled with the music, the movement and the blinking lights of so many intergalactic blockbusters. (My memory also kept flashing back, unhelpfully, to the opening segment of Prometheus
.) Tyson is giving us the theoretical nuts-and-bolts of time and space wrapped in Hollywood’s romance with fantasy and technology.
sometimes sticks closer to home: The second episode begins with Tyson, sitting by an open fire and dressed in a parka, explaining how wolves evolved into dogs.
In his pleasantly reasonable away, Tyson is a Darwinian. What else would the head of Manhattan's Hayden Planetarium be?
Still, given our times, which recently witnessed "Science Guy" Bill Nye
debating the founder of the Creation Museum, this needs to be pointed out. To demonstrate how the human eye was perfected, Tyson’s ship flies back in time a few billion years to the eye's starting point: a mutation that caused light sensitivity in an aquatic bacterium.
Somehow we eventually end up aboard his spaceship and splashing down into a lake on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The scope of Cosmos
swings easily, and without causing wooziness, between the infinite and the infinitesimal.
By the way, what moon of Saturn are you?